Watching a documentary featuring the ultramarathoner Scott Jurek the other night, I found it hard to believe that the guy was real. Despite the quirky, unmistakably late-’90s cinematography used in the film, Susan Cohn Rockefeller’s Running Madness, which is centered on the 2001 running of Western States 100-mile race, the documentary helped instill my belief that Jurek is some powerful elven hero invented by a science fiction writer.
This despite — or really because of — the fact that I had just finished reading his long-awaited memoir, 2012’s Eat and Run, which is about both his veganism and his accomplished running career. The book, co-written by sports writer Steve Friedman, lets Jurek’s confident personality shine through. The confidence adds to the man’s mythic status. For instance, at one point he lavishes a few sentences of generous praise on fellow ultramarathoner Brian Morrison and then adds, “In many ways he reminded me of me.”
Good for him, because runners have for too long been stereotyped as introverted, gawky individuals who relish the loneliness of their sport. Jurek probably is introverted and definitely is gawky (hey, me too). He comes across on camera and in his writing as sensitive and soften-spoken. But he’s also cocky and determined, making him, in my view, the ideal ambassador for American distance running. Jurek is on a mission greater than himself, and his attitude is exactly what’s needed to disseminate his message.
The message that Eat and Run offers is this: running is a spiritual undertaking that has the power to transform the life of anyone who commits to it. Jurek also argues that the right fuel is crucial to a runner’s overall health and performance. In his view, a “plant-based diet” (he hesitates to call it vegan, perhaps so as to not alienate people who can’t fathom veganism) is the best way to fuel. Jurek has been vegan for about 15 years, and during that time he has won and/or set course records on all of the most grueling running races on the planet, including Western States 100 (five times), the Spartathlon (three times), Badwater (twice), and Hardrock (once). He also holds the American 24-hour hour distance record (165.7 miles). On a vegan diet? I was skeptical too.
But the specifics of what Jurek is doing, while obviously significant (particularly the diet part), aren’t as interesting as the bigger challenge that they’re tackling, which is: how do we live healthily and happily in a society that seems to encourage sloth, unhealthy eating, materialism and excessive energy consumption? Is it possible to curb all of those things by doing just a couple of things? Jurek believes that running and a vegan lifestyle are a means to many positive ends.
As many other influential people, including author and activist Michael Pollan and critic and author Mark Bittman, have been saying recently, a “plant-based diet,” as Jurek cautiously calls it, is the way forward if you can’t commit to veganism in its totality. This frustrates vegans, but it’s hard to argue with taking a moderate approach when trying to convince millions of Americans to improve their habits. We know that crash diets don’t work in the long term, and to a newcomer, a vegan diet could feel like exactly that — a blip on the diet radar. It’s better to get a lot of people to come halfway than to get a small percentage to come all the way.
As a longtime runner, I was already a convert to half of Jurek’s cause. But exercise is exercise; it doesn’t matter so much which form of it you do. When you’re in the thick of exercise, it’s hard to imagine how you couldn’t be, how anyone couldn’t be: exercise allows you to meditate, decompress, take a break from the stressors in your life, and work your cardiovascular system, which your body so desperately wants anyway — we sit far too much. But there’s just one problem: to the uninitiated, busy, unhealthy, or some combination of the three, exercise stinks. How can someone like Jurek, a potential clearing in a thicket of diet and exercise fads, convince exercise haters to take up a sport and start eating more plants? It was hard enough for me, a relatively health-conscious runner, to wrap my head around eating more plants, much less going totally vegan.
Well, consider that Jurek is almost 40 but looks years younger, with a smooth, glowing, almost wrinkle-free face that seems to somehow have been spared of sun damage despite the thousands of hours he’s spent outside since the start of his running career 20 years ago. Plus, Jurek claims that since his conversion to veganism and ultra running, he doesn’t need as much sleep and routinely wakes up refreshed. His medical examinations regularly impress doctors. He has low blood pressure, low levels of bad cholesterol, and high levels of good cholesterol. If he gets injured (and he does get injured; no runner is immune to that), he abstains from any painkillers, instead using natural anti-inflammatory remedies like turmeric.
Consider, also, the spiritual component of what Jurek does. Near the end of the book, he says this:
I’m convinced that a lot of people run ultra marathons for the same reason they take mood-altering drugs. I don’t mean to minimize the gifts of friendship, achievement and closeness to nature that I’ve received in my running career. But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind–a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus. I don’t think anyone starts running distances to obtain that kind of vision. I certainly didn’t. But I don’t think anyone who runs ultra distances with regularity fails to get there. The trick is to recognize the vision when it comes over you.
The trouble with calorie-burning activities like running is that they make you think you can eat whatever you want. A steak after a long run? Much-needed protein and iron. A few beers after a workout? Carbo-loading! But what Jurek wants us to see is that there are other, initially — but only initially — less appetizing ways of getting these nutrients (with the exception of Vitamin B12). To me, this can be best explained by the phrase “eating for tomorrow, not for today.” Eating for today means satisfying our hunger and rewarding ourselves for what we’ve just accomplished. Eating for tomorrow means doing that and ensuring that we’ll get a good night’s sleep, wake up recovered from today’s exercising and, most important, be ready to do it all again.
That’s the biggest challenge of exercise: doing it all again tomorrow. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve patted myself on the back for a great run and been convinced that the endorphins and motivation would last forever, and then not run again for days or weeks. We need the cycle to continue in order for a stint or a fad to turn into a lifestyle. Jurek has convinced me that the most reliable way we can do that is to take excellent care of the engine that’s allowing us to move in the first place.